America’s Riven Politics
A Harvard Magazine Q & A with Evan Osnos ’98, author of Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury
Evan Osnos ’98, who reported on a changing People’s Republic of China for The New Yorker, was struck by the changes in the United States when he returned home to begin reporting for the magazine from Washington, D.C. In 2021, he published Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, about the depth of the divisions in this country, and their origins. Some of the most vivid reporting in the book stems from his return to places he knew earlier in his life: Greenwich, Connecticut, where country-club Republicanism evolved into something much harder-edged; former coal-mining communities in West Virginia where the economy has collapsed—and miners lost their pensions and healthcare coverage when investors took over the remains of the companies that employed them and pursued financial restructurings; and inner-city Chicago, where neighborhoods were devastated by the departure of major employers and the abusive mortgages sold during the real-estate boom in the first decade of this century. The paperback edition of the book appears today, and Osnos’s reporting remains highly pertinent to understanding the country’s political fissures. He engaged in this email interview with Harvard Magazine. ~The Editors
In 2013, as you prepared to return to the United States after reporting from China for The New Yorker, friends in Beijing warned you about the dangers of traveling to a country where so many people had guns. With that disquieting note in mind, what was your frame of mind, or set of expectations, about leaving the People’s Republic, where Xi Jinping was just setting about creating what has become a highly nationalistic, highly authoritarian party state, and coming to the United States during Barack Obama’s second term?
For a decade, I worked in authoritarian countries, where I often found myself making a case for the United States—not on the page, but in my ordinary conversations. I tended to urge neighbors and friends in China or Egypt or Syria to believe that, for all of America’s failings in Iraq or at home, it aspired to some deep moral commitments, including the rule of law, the power of truth, and the right to pursue a better life. Obviously, we fall short, but those aspirations are essential to the story we tell ourselves. “France was a land, England was a people, but America,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1929, is “a willingness of the heart.”
But when I came back to the U.S., I sensed all three of those core commitments under threat: The scale and implication of money in politics had become tantamount to legal corruption; nearly one-in-five Americans believed the lie that Obama was a Muslim; and social mobility was getting swamped by inequality. I had to ask: Had I been lying to people overseas all those years? Had I been lying to myself?
By early 2015, you were deep into reporting about white nationalist/supremacist groups, extremists who were openly excited about Donald Trump’s campaign and his dog-whistling to them. What got you going on that reporting thread? What did you learn about America from it? And what further reporting avenues did it open?
When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, the press largely treated it as a spectacle—which was a tragic error. I happened to be working at the time on an investigative piece about the subculture that inspired a racist gunman who massacred Black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. And white nationalists told me bluntly—enthusiastically—that they felt mobilized by candidate Trump’s demonization of immigrants, and by his politics of fear and grievance. They revealed a growing reservoir of political energy, not well understood at the time, which combined several elements: a conspiratorial “paranoid style,” which Richard Hofstadter had described decades earlier; an increasingly armed fear of outsiders and “enemies within” since 9/11; and, finally, the new tools of organization and deception created by social media. I spent the next six years dissecting each of those phenomena as best I could.
You talk at length about the decline, or even loss, of local communities: the shared values of country-club Republican Greenwich, of small-city West Virginia. Some of that is economic: the collapse of industry in West Virginia, of manufacturing assembly work in Chicago. Some of it is ideological: as some Greenwich conservatives, for example, became more libertarian, anti-regulation, and anti-immigrant. Some of it is structural and technological: the loss of small-town newspapers, the rise of social media, and the resulting shift of political connections and passions from personal, local ones, to remote, national, and more polarized ones. It’s a lot to process. What are your overarching thoughts about where those changes have left America and Americans, versus a more homogenous place like the party-dominated state and society in the People’s Republic?
On each side of the U.S.-China relationship, it’s always been tempting to caricature the other: the Americans as heedless individualists and cowboys, the Chinese as drudges and drones. Neither is true, of course, but each has drawn strength from its position on that spectrum. Modern China made massive investments; Modern America achieved massive innovations. But the habit of mind that truly benefited the United States was a combination that Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” He meant that Americans seemed to maintain a balance—a tension—between sanctifying the individual and celebrating community, between self-interest and social obligation. In Greenwich, for instance, it played out for centuries as a tug-of-war between the buccaneer and the Brahmin. In many realms of American life, I think we’ve lost some of that “self-interest rightly understood,” and replaced it with a harsher, and ultimately, weaker notion of what it means to live together.
Even if many, or most, of those divides existed earlier, how consequential is it that they have been given a voice, or voices, for public expression? That is, is the country in a more dangerous place because its public conversation has become more brutal, more adversarial, more uninhibited—what you termed a “combat mindset” for politics?
Division is not new—just as there is nothing new about greed or guns or political deception. But, in each of those cases, we have supercharged their effect on society by creating and refining tools of such vast new power that they are incomparable to what came before. Wildland, at its essence, is about these extraordinary tools—for building wealth, firing bullets, and circulating information—that are so powerful that they alter not just the arrangement of American politics, but also the chemistry of it. The AR-15 is as different from a musket as a hedge fund is from a Wall Street bank in the Victorian era; the disinformation on Facebook is not just a digital version of a pamphlet handed out by the John Birch Society; it is, in the wrong hands, a superspreader of lies. Taken together, our latest tools are differences of kind, not degree, and we have to see them as such, or we risk blinding ourselves to the cumulative effects.
The most vivid part of the book, for me, is your direct reporting on the lives and circumstances of people who are disaffected from American life and politics, and particularly elite politics, because of specific things the system did to them: the black family in Chicago who lost their hard-won house to a disastrous mortgage they never should have been sold; the miners in West Virginia whose pension benefits were extinguished in bankruptcy court at the behest of vulture hedge funds—even as the companies’ managements, hedge funds, and attorneys made millions. These hard stories take the detached analysis about economic change and disaffection from the “system” (the economic and political elites) and make it gut-wrenchingly real. What do you learn from those people’s lives, and what do you think it takes to make the country work for them—given what you also report about the power of moneyed interest groups in America’s political system today? What does the survival, again, of private-equity managers’ carried-interest tax treatment, in the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act, say about current Congressional politics?
In very different parts of the country, I found a unifying frustration: The gap between the will of the public, and the actions of government. Substantial majorities of Americans—at least two-thirds—wanted universal background checks on guns, voting-rights protections, and a higher minimum wage—and, yet, none of those could get through Congress. That’s because the system has been shaped, especially since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, to boost the signal from interest groups that can afford it. U.S. companies have vastly expanded their spending on lobbying and public relations in Washington, because it works. Joe Biden is the third consecutive president to have called for eliminating the carried-interest tax break, which mostly benefits private-equity investors, but it was saved this summer by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat, who threatened to scuttle historic legislation on climate and healthcare if the tax break was eliminated. Why? Her only explanation, so far, has been that she accepted the industry’s case that cutting it would be bad for Arizona’s economy. Some speculate that she was swayed by campaign contributions. (In the past five years, she received $2.2 million from investment firms.) But other Senators have received larger sums, so, why, exactly, did Sinema accept the industry’s view over the arguments of so many critics of carried interest in politics and economics? It’s a mystery she feels no evident pressure to decipher—and that, at its essence, is the story of how American politics generates the fury we face today.